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Florida Republicans are clever. They have wasted no time riding a conservative movement to sanitize our public schools from books and discussions about race and the existence of gay and transgender people.
The 2022 session was all about waging those cultural wars in the name of “transparency” and parental involvement in public education. But we see right through them. Their latest iteration is House Bill 1467. It would make it easier for parents — and we suspect political groups whose members might not have kids in public school — to challenge and ban instructional materials and library books. It would also put Tallahassee in charge of compiling a list of books banned by school districts because of an objection, so that other districts can consider them “in their selection procedures.”
That’s just our state government helping districts self-censor. After all, if a book is banned in one part of the state, why risk keeping it on your shelves and becoming the target of angry parents and activists? Testimony heard during legislative hearings provided a sample of what’s to come. Bill supporters wearing “Florida Parents Know Best” T-shirts accused districts of showing LGBTQ “cartoon videos to the kids” without telling parents, as well as porn and providing critical race theory and “gender confusion” material.
The craftiness of it is that this bill is not entirely objectionable. It imposes 12-year term limits on school board members, which forces turnover and fresh ideas among school leadership. Critics argue that turnover happens through elections, but incumbents rarely get serious challengers and unseated.
Another reasonable provision requires parents to be part of school district committees that select books, and that they meet publicly. Democrats are running for the hills, shouting “Nazis!” and evoking Germany’s 1933 book burnings. Such comparisons to Hitler are unnecessary and should be reserved only for actions that truly come close to the horrors of his regime.
Plus, conservatives know better than to ban books outright. Their strategy is more insidious.
It won’t empty the shelves of school libraries overnight, but it will open the door to fear and self-censorship by school administrators. Books are the new bogeyman. State law already prohibits pornography and content that’s not age appropriate. Most important, parental involvement already is required, because each school board must “adopt a policy regarding an objection by a parent or a resident of the county to the use of a specific instructional material.”
No books or instructional materials were challenged this or last school year in Miami-Dade County, according to the district. Funny how that seemed to be working until school books became a conservative target. HB 1467 would expand the types of books parents and residents can challenge to include those in libraries and reading lists besides instructional materials assigned in class, sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, testified.
Elementary schools would have to post on their website in a searchable format all books available in the school library or required as part of a reading list. Those titles would be available for all members of the public, and some critics questioned why not make it available only for parents. We think we know why. Libraries aren’t just a parental concern anymore, they are battlefields of the culture wars.
Racism, diversity as targets
Conservative groups across the country are trying to ban books such as “I am Jazz,” an autobiographical children’s picture book about a transgender teen, and the work of Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison, whose novels depict the pain of racism often through scenes that are uncomfortable to read, as they depict sex and sexual assault. Not surprisingly, the books that received the most challenges in libraries and schools in 2020 dealt with “racism, Black American history and diversity in the United States,” an American Library Association official told NPR.
The bill requires employees in charge of choosing books in school libraries to undergo online training provided by the state Department of Education. The department reports to the commissioner of education, an indirect appointee of the governor, who has made schools a political tool, banning the teaching of critical race theory, even through districts say it’s not in their curriculum.
DeSantis successfully pushed another bill (HB 7) to ban lessons about race that make white kids feel uncomfortable. He also supports the so-called “Don’t say gay” bill (HB 1557) to ban instruction related to sexuality and gender identity in K-3. What that training would look like is unclear.
But we can picture how it might instruct librarians to avoid “critical race theory literature” (say, a book about structural racism or white privilege). No, this bill isn’t a Nazi-like book ban as Democrats claim. But it’s not all about transparency either, as Republicans would have us think.
This editorial initially appeared in The Miami Herald.